Lots for sale near herons concern many

A recent real estate listing has ruffled some feathers in Winslow.

A pair of undeveloped waterfront parcels re-entered the market for the first time since the 1970s. Together, they make an acre-sized lot on a quiet cul-de-sac just outside of Bainbridge’s busiest area, for just above $1.3 million — a weighty pricetag, even by BI standards.

The listing suggests this is a “fantastic opportunity to build [a] dream home on a large waterfront lot.”

There’s one caveat—the property on Lovell Avenue SW is already home to unique multi-family housing: a historic Great Blue Heron rookery, 30-odd nests strong, and the only one on BI.

Property owners George and Jane Hancock of Maritime Pacific Brewery in Ballard purchased the land in the 1970s with the hope of building their dream home. They used to sail from Shilshole to Winslow just for the fish and chips at the old Tavern on Madison Avenue, recounted George Hancock.

“We told ourselves that it would be wonderful to have a place on the island where we could keep our boat and live and commute to our jobs in Seattle,” Hancock said. The couple “scraped together a down payment and proceeded to invest in the community,” he added, but their Ballard business took precedence.

“Today we find ourselves with our dream property up for sale with still no home on it. We would love to see someone build their own dream home on our little piece of the island,” Hancock said.

Scott Heiser, a neighbor and retired attorney, was floored when he saw the land listed for sale. “We walk by there all the time to witness the majesty and significance of that habitat for those birds,” Heiser said. “Anything short of preservation as-is will be detrimental to these animals.”

Records of Bainbridge’s Great Blue Heron rookery go back to at least 2003, but Heiser said he recalls it existing for decades. While the birds are not endangered, they are considered a sensitive species by the state Department of Ecology.

Like any discerning homeowner, herons require a precise combination of amenities to settle in an area. They only form colonies in trees, on cliffs or on human-made structures adjacent to good feeding grounds, such as eelgrass beds. They prefer their home roost to be on the quiet side, state researchers said.

“Although herons can nest in disturbed urban areas, disturbance can lead birds to terminate breeding attempts, especially when a disturbance occurs early in the nesting period or when it is a large or novel event,” environmental planner Jeffrey Azerrad wrote in a state Department of Fish and Wildlife document.

If one pair is frightened off their nest, the rest of the colony tends to follow — resulting in a possible abandonment of the rookery, Azerrad explained.

The Bainbridge rookery and nearby shoreline has been designated as “priority habitat” by the state since the early 2000s. According to state management recommendations, any heron rookery requires a year-round human buffer of at least 65 yards. During breeding season, that buffer increases to 220 yards for any “unusually loud activities” and double that for “extremely loud activities,” such as blasting.

However, until any construction projects are proposed on the site, the state regulatory agency’s hands are tied — it’s up to the city of BI to determine whether the site can feasibly sustain a structure. City officials are in a similar position: without any building proposal to evaluate, it’s not possible to judge whether a structure could be approved.

“There are too many unknowns to really start speculating,” said Shannon Hays, COBI communications coordinator.

Building on the property would be no easy task. City documents say the rookery is not the only limitation. The only area on the property that can feasibly support a structure has a stream running through it. Additionally, it’s in a flood zone, and state shoreline protections limit access to the waterfront.

Even if a new owner were to leave the land as-is, they would still face complications. In January, the Hancocks hired arborist Katy Bigelow to assess several trees. Her investigation found that four maple stems show signs of failure, and should come down. The four are leaning over the garage next door and show signs of fungal rot. Upon collapse, the trees could damage the garage or block the road. The problem maples are near the rookery, but the heron nests are in healthy maples.

Others have issues but can be saved. “All of these trees should be worked on as soon as possible to avoid any impacts to the heron rookery,” Bigelow said. She added that in the event that work could not be completed before mid-February, work could tentatively be delayed until the following September.

The listing’s real estate agent, Vic Jones of Neighborhood Experts Real Estate, said that he is aware of the rookery, but the primary concern he has heard from neighbors is loss of privacy. The Lovell parcels are wooded, and neighbors appreciate the solitude the trees provide in an area as dense as Winslow, he said.

Jones estimated that construction permits from the city alone would take anywhere from six months to a year. The realtor also stated that he contacted local environmental agencies and COBI to mitigate any impacts to the rookery that may arise from construction and would encourage any new buyers to be conscious of the birds. However, the clause is not a stipulation of ownership.

“Whoever buys the land can do whatever the planning department will allow,” Jones wrote in an email.

That raised some questions from Heiser. “It’s certainly encouraging news to hear that the owners have indicated a willingness to respect the herons’ nesting season and not disturb the heritage trees, [but] are the owners willing to respect the entire environment impacting the rookery or are they going to go in there and cut down everything except for trees that have nests?” he asked.

“If the owners are truly concerned about the environmental significance of this property, why is their listing agent marketing this nesting habitat as a ‘build your waterfront dream home’ opportunity?”

The land has over 1,400 views and 84 saves on Zillow. The BI Land Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the island’s environment, has expressed interest in the properties.

“We are actively working on evaluating these parcels to possibly protect them under the ongoing Stand for the Land acquisition campaign,” said Cullen Brady, BILT executive director. “The Bainbridge Island Land Trust is grateful for the community’s enthusiasm for protecting wildlife habitat and its steadfast dedication to conservation.”

Ken Thomas courtesy photo
A great blue heron stalks some prey along the shore.

Ken Thomas courtesy photo A great blue heron stalks some prey along the shore.